Friday, December 27, 2013

A Poem a Week, a Short Story a Month, a Novel a Year

I'm going to doom myself and make a New Year's resolution.

This year for Christmas, I wrote short stories and poems for as many family members as my (limited) mental fortitude would allow. Some were funny, some were sad, some were sentimental. I wrote with everything from The Weepies to the Diablo II soundtrack playing to set the right mood. My body of work hasn't been this large and varied since my senior year, and I find my sudden prolific-ness intoxicating. I want to keep it up.

The poems were without a doubt the biggest stretch for me. Until recently, I had no interest in them whatsoever. Then I read a collection of poems by Keith Douglas, a soldier/poet from World War II. It was good. After I wrote a poem or two or my own, I read the collection again. It was really good.

I also discovered that writing a poem isn't nearly the massive time-sink that a novel is, which is A GINORMOUS RELIEF when I really want to accomplish something before work but can't dedicate the time and energy that I want to The Novel, or when I'd rather think about cookies than swordfights that day.

To further supplement my education, I've ordered this book, the intense study of which will surely reveal to me just how awful my first attempts actually are (and make me love Stephen Fry even more):

Now I know I just said my poems suck, but I'm thinking about sharing them here anyway. At first I was hesitant. For one thing, I tend to avoid spewing my noobsauce all over the Internet for fear of future embarrassment. For another, following submission guidelines and negotiating contracts can often get much trickier when blog posts become a factor. 

But then, I have no delusions aspirations of becoming a famous wealthy poet. Mainly because they don't exist, but also because unlike my novel writing, I have no desire to treat my poetry like a business. I am making observations, not a product to sell. I doubt anyone would ever want to give me money for my observations anyway, on account of my being a nobody, and after all, a blog is an ideal place for no one of interest to comment on nothing in particular. 

So that's my goal for 2014: try my best to write a poem a week, a short story a month, and - please, please God help me - finish the second draft of The Novel by next Christmas.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The "Other" Story

I've been stepping out on my novel. Maybe my slow, sporadic revision methods are negatively impacting my interest, or maybe the act of revision itself is becoming too frustrating for it to be my only project, and I need the distraction of a Shiny New Idea. I'm too noob at both psychology and writing to accurately analyze the reason for my unfaithfulness, but for now I'm embracing it.

It's sort of a mix between historical fiction and fantasy. At first it was straight up fantasy, but as I was deliberating over certain worldbuilding and plot elements, I stumbled across The Longhouse religion, founded by Seneca Chief Handsome Lake. Lots of things fell into place, and the world my story takes place in feels more complete now, but more importantly, the more I read, the more I became enthralled with the entire Iroquois history and culture. 

I fully admit that less than a week ago, I knew next to nothing about modern or historic Native Americans. Now that I'm staring my white privilege in its pasty face, I realize that I knew nothing about them because I didn't have to know. As a person of European descent, reading history books in schools founded by other people of European descent, I was told, in so many words, that my history was the one that mattered. Native American culture - or rather, the wide variety of Native American cultures that we tend to lump together into one shallow caricature, were a novelty of the past, irrelevant to my modern world. It's been difficult to accept the fact that I benefit every day from the atrocities of colonialism, but it has also motivated me to seek out ways I can use what I learn to make a positive impact.   

It's a complex subject that will take more than a few days on Google to understand, but I'm actually excited about all of the research ahead of me. Further educating myself definitely needs to happen before I look for a banner to wave, not after. It's going to be hard to narrow down my book list, since I've found books covering everything from Iroquois medical botany to Seneca folk tales to illustrated guides on Native American dance steps. It's going to be even harder to decide where exactly I'm going to draw the lines between history and fantasy. I want paint an authentic picture of the rich, living culture of the Seneca...while also telling a story about demons and magic and undead and other way cool things I love about fantasy. What I keep and what I make my own will, I think, ultimately determine where I fall on the appreciation versus appropriation spectrum when this project is completed.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

This Picture Contains Unintelligible Nonsense (Probably)

During our most recent tabletop session, we ran into a slight problem while planning Elestyne and Kortesh's next move. You see, in the previous session, I had failed to document a certain tidbit of information. I'll spare you the details, but suffice to say that the entire overarching plot hinges on this "tidbit".

Luckily, we remembered what we needed to know after 20 minutes of head-scratching, but this isn't the first time we've encountered this problem, and I realized that my note-taking methods were the root of the issue. For the last 2 years, I've spent every session bent over a colossal binder, writing down everything that is said and done in the fasted longhand I can manage. Turns out, that's not enough. For one thing, it's extremely difficult to roleplay and accurately document at the same time. For another, writing feverishly in cursive for multiple hours at a time does not a happy wrist make.

So I've taken it upon myself to master a skill known to court reporters, journalists, and secret agents everywhere.

They say most people can become proficient with Teeline shorthand after about 200 hours of practice, which gives me plenty of time before our next session. After 3 days, I can write out almost everything I'd want to say in shorthand, and now it's just a matter of being able to write it all down at the speed of dictation. For the next 3 weeks, you can be sure that if I have heard it, it has been documented. To those in my vicinity, I would advise against saying anything, be it a false promise or a true confession, that you would not wish to have on record.

Unless you're a fast talker. Then you're probably safe.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Sometimes, Writer's Block Is Like The Kissing Disease

You know when you've been sluggish, swoon-y and vomit-y for what feels like your entire life, then when you finally go to the doctor and test positive for mono, you go, "Ah, jeez. Mono? This is gonna suck!"

Then the doctor gives you a dopey smile and says, "Well, at least we know what's wrong now."

Yeah, I guess we do, doc.

I recently went through the writer's equivalent. (Although unlike mono, most of us experience it more than once in our lives.)

I spent almost three weeks dragging myself through one scene. Part of it was because the workload for my course is more intense than anticipated, but mostly it was because the whole time I couldn't shake this feeling that something about the scene was wrong wrong wrong.

Good News:  I found out what was wrong. I was in the wrong character's head the whole time.

Bad News: The characters are way too different for me to just swap the pronouns and call it good. I now have to rewrite the whole thing.

More Good News: The words will probably come a lot more easily this time.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Back To School, Sort Of (Alternatively Titled: "At Least It's Not Underwater Basket-Weaving?")

After three years out of high school, my brain is finally able to entertain concepts like graded essays, lectures, and literary analysis without melting in the heat of conformist academia. At the behest of a friend, I have signed up for a free online course through a lovely company called Coursera.

Of course, it helps that the syllabus this particular course involves reading some of the best and most influential science fiction and fantasy novels of the last hundred and fifty years or so. For the next 11 weeks, it's all about "Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World".

I swear it's not as fluffy as it sounds. When it comes to reading for pleasure, I average about 2 books a month, and this course requires either a novel or collection of short stories a week. I'll have to write an essay of about 300 words on each unit. A book report alone isn't enough, I also have to make a unique and brilliant observation about some aspect of the text. I'm slightly nervous about this. After all, what is the worth of a speculative fiction writer without an interesting perspective?

Although I won't get college credits for this, I will get a signed certificate by an actual respected professor at an actual reputable university if I perform well enough. I don't imagine I'll acknowledge it in future author bios, but the accomplishment should be at least as satisfying as winning NaNoWriMo.

I do have some reservations. My English major aunt says nothing ruins a good book like literary analysis, and I've personally experienced people seeing things in my writing that I simply did not put there (intentionally). I was lucky, in that their interpretation made me seem a lot more insightful than I was; however, anyone who's listened to someone with too much time and too many degrees discuss the political landscape of Middle Earth knows that some theories can become offensively far-fetched. Just once, I want to see an Important Author of the 20th Century raise their hand during a three-hour lecture on their work and say, "I'm sorry, what?"  

But I am a good student, and I'm here to learn with an open mind. I'll try my best to behave.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Societal Norms and Maureen Johnson's "Coverflip" Challenge

You know back in the old days when manly things were good/strong/smart things, and all those things women did were...not quite as good/strong/smart? That's still a thing.

Maureen Johnson is a Young Adult (YA) writer who's books often involve supernatural monsters, brutal murders, dysfunctional relationships, and other unpleasant things. Despite her themes, her book covers most often feature a combination of pretty girls, sassy poses, pastel backgrounds and cutesy fonts. In a word, they're girly.

She recently tweeted: I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, 'Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. - signed, A Guy"

Afterwards, she put forth a challenge to her almost 80,000 followers: redesign the cover of a popular book based on how a marketing team would envision it if the author were of the opposite gender. The results were a fascinating look into how society interprets "masculine" and "feminine". I found the re-imagining of Lord of the Flies especially hilarious. It shows a tiny plastic piglet held in cupped hands, reminiscent of the now-iconic Twilight cover.

Although I don't write YA, as a female fantasy writer, I have to put up with similar nonsense. There's a lot of overlap between the SFF and gamer community, of which I'm also a part. A shockingly large percentage of the fanbase still treats their hobby/interest like a sort of boy's club that girls wouldn't understand, and even if they did, they aren't allowed anyway. Like other male-dominated professions, female gamers and authors have to work twice as hard to prove they're as good as the men, and when it's time to divvy out the accolades they still get half the recognition they deserve.

Since this is an issue that's getting more attention as time goes on, I try to be optimistic about my own future as a published author. It's hard. Decades after the feminist movement, I see how far we still have to go, and I worry.

My protagonists are considered the Other by 99% of the people they meet, whether it's because of their race, their skin color, their culture, or their abilities; however, even though they are a decided minority, and their background isn't at all Euro-centric, at the end of the day they are still fairly attractive white people.

I have nightmares of covers depicting Elestyne lying prone in a White Dress Not Appearing In This Novel that's torn in all the right places, while a barechested Kortesh saves her from the other pit fighters with the brazen might of his penis sword. Also, both of them are now blonde.

This isn't the 80's, so I doubt the sexism would be that in-your-face. It's 2013. We're more likely get the split screen view, with Elestyne on one side staring at the reader, empty-eyed with her lips slightly parted - the signature Mysterious Sex Kitten expression, but it's not objectification because look, she's got a penis sword! You can't objectify someone with a penis sword. (Curse this Freudian keyboard.) Meanwhile, on the other side, Kortesh is glaring broodily as the lighting effects emphasize every chiseled feature, so the reader knows that he's hardened by his experiences with the cruel, cruel world. Get it, ladies? Hardened.

All this absurdity, and my characters are still better off than if they were non-white. They are likely to befall the same fate as Ged, the protagonist of Ursula Le Guin's groundbreaking A Wizard of Earthsea. Ged has yet to have an actual brown person portray his character in an audio-visual adaptation of his story, and most of the many editions of the novel have a pasty white dude on the cover.

Society whitewashes things for the same reason they sort books, toys, professions, and everything else under the sun into "boy" and "girl" categories. They're all trying to appeal to the widest audience possible. They want the highest sales potential. They keep it up because it's proven to be a smart, safe marketing decision, but the backlash is becoming more and more difficult for them to ignore.

Sexism doesn't hurt girls who want to play sports as much as it used to. For that I am grateful. We still need to do something about the boys who feel like they can't read a book because there's pink on it, and the girls who look down their nose at "chick lit" because they're too smart for that shallow fluff. Maybe, in my lifetime, we'll progress to the point where we stop separating books into "general fiction" and "women's fiction", as if 50% of the population and 80% of the readership still need a special place just for them. We could put books written by non-white, non-Europeans all over the bookstore, instead of sticking them in the "international" section where fewer people will find them.

In some exterior, superficial way, most people in the world are different from us. That time when men were men, women were women, and everyone who looked/spoke/dressed/believed differently from us were separated by thousands of miles of land and sea? It never existed. We tried to write our history to make it seem that way, but the blinders are coming off.

Slowly but surely, we're realizing that being ignorant of the Other and limiting their representation so we can convince ourselves that our tribe is the only one we need to understand is a pretty jerky thing to do. We're learning that when we limit others, we limit ourselves.

Monday, May 6, 2013

On Comparing Yourself to Others

Part of the reason why I don't enjoy reality talent shows is because I don't think it's funny to watch people embarrass themselves. All through the audition stage, all I can see is the pain, and often genuine confusion in their eyes when the judges tell them things that might be true if they weren't so mocking. Worst of all is when the same people audition year after year, never becoming any more aware of themselves. After all, "You shouldn't compare yourself to others," the sages say. I see these people, and as bad as I feel, I breathe a sigh of relief, because I narrowly dodged that same bullet.

Had I not compared myself to my peers, a lot more time would have passed before I realized I wasn't born to be a professional dancer. A large part of it is because my body simply can't do what the pros do, but my lack of success isn't just because of inherent genetics. See, that was where the comparisons ended for me for the longest time, and it sent me into a downward spiral of self-pity and resentment. The truth is, although I gave 110% in class, my work ethic never extended outside the studio. I could blame it on a lack of open space at home with the right kind of flooring, but I knew dancers who made it happen without those things.

My approach to academics was similar. I never studied for tests because I never needed to, and one year I actually got in trouble for not turning in homework, even though I was acing all of my subjects. Floating through school on raw genius (hur hur) ended up biting me in the butt my senior year, when I got a C on my first psychology exam. I was shocked, shocked I tell you, as was the rest of the class, who were apparently used to doing the same thing. One student was spared this harsh lesson in reality. She got an A. She actually studied.

I didn't want to experience the same hurt with writing, so I started making comparisons early. At first it was hard to look deeper than, "This author writes more in a day than I manage in a month!" That way madness lies. I know myself. I'm never going to be one of those writers that can, say, put out multiple books a year while juggling a family and a full-time job. That's okay. I don't have to do all that to be considered successful in my field.

The trick was in comparing our processes, not our results. What do all accomplished dancers, test-takers and writers have in common? Hard work, sure, but it goes beyond even that. They're all pro-active about their own improvement. 

I have a passive personality, and it shows in every aspect of my life. I'm a fast learner, but when I hit a wall, I "react" by doing the same thing over and over until someone finally taps me on the shoulder and points out what isn't working. (Or until I fall hard enough for it to hurt.) All my momentum is lost because I don't lay the proper groundwork to keep moving forward.

So I'm keeping a writing journal of sorts. I'm figuring out what methods will keep me the most focused and result in the highest quality words. I'm being gentle with myself if I cut more than I keep in a day. At this stage, the amount of words in the document isn't necessarily proportional to what I've learned about the craft.

I think it's the gentleness that's key for me. Instead of treating each writing session like a battle in the protracted war against my own laziness, I see it for what it is: a chance to make something and understand the world, others, and myself better through that creation process. Sure, some days the words feel like they're bled rather than typed out, but either way, I'm putting a part of myself into it.

I don't compare myself to others to measure my shortcomings. I do it so I can learn what makes me do my best.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The First Picture Post!

After almost three years of living in the fabulous Adirondacks, I finally got tired of keeping my books in grocery bags and shoeboxes. Matt and I bought a bookshelf a few days ago, and today was my first day home alone in weeks. Dearest father-in-law suggested I wait until Matt got home from work and let him set it up, and I promptly ignored him. Since neither Matt nor I had any experience with furniture assembly, I saw no reason to stand back and wait for someone with more testosterone to do something I was equally capable of doing. Additionally, the past month has been rough and I desperately needed a project to clear my head. (I'll be blogging more regularly starting in May.)

Matt was supportive and proud of my efforts. Truly, it was the perfect opportunity to simultaneously support female empowerment and get out of crawling around on a hardwood floor. His old-before-their-time knees and back were appreciative.   

I have the shelves mostly organized by genre, and plan to further arrange them alphabetically by author at a later date. Figment is an adorable photobomber. 

 I made this silk flower bouquet for our wedding, and have kept it around as a decorative keepsake. I              don't know if you can tell, but I'm wearing a black dress. I was an official Offbeat Bride

On the bottom shelf is our budding collection of board games, my binder filled with tabletop session notes and book outlines, and a few odds and ends I haven't found a place for yet. Anyone interested in a copy of Lord Brocktree? As you can see, I have an extra.

The full picture. My OCD tendencies are a little bothered that the shelf doesn't line up with the slanted ceiling, but anything smaller wouldn't have been enough space, and it will be nice to have something larger when we eventually move out of our little apartment upstairs.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Balancing Work (and Play) and Writing

I knew it was a bad sign when I started filling my pocket notebook with more work notes than story notes.

I was recently given a temporary promotion as assistant manager at my store while my boss is gone for training. For the next eight weeks I'll have more hours, more pay, and more responsibility, and after that I return to serfdom. So far I quite enjoy not being chained to the register for 4-6 hours, but there are other aspects of the job that leave me just as drained by the end of the day.

Instead of standing in one spot while wearing my peppy cashier mask all day, I'm lifting heavy things, organizing shelves, making displays looks pretty, and doings lots of paperwork all day. I think ultimately I prefer physical and mental exhaustion to social exhaustion, but my writing has nevertheless suffered while I cram my head with all the Retail Stuff I have to remember.

It sounds like I'm blaming the job, but the truth is the biggest obstacle to my writing is still me. Although training for my new position started two weeks ago, it's been almost four since I accomplished anything substantial with my novel. Too much free time gives me a lack of focus, and I end up wasting my time with things I merely like that require little brainpower instead of things I love that command my full attention.

Last night after closing the store solo for the first time, I slumped into my computer chair. I wasn't feeling very motivated at all. My husband said, "You want to play League or write?" I said I would write, because that seemed like the right thing to do, so he queued for a match without me. For about half an hour, I clicked around my writer's forums instead. It wasn't until I read about a mom of three with multiple published books under her belt that I finally kicked myself into actually writing.

Many writing moms say they write more post-pregnancy, not less. Getting pregnant seemed like an expensive fix to my productivity issues, but then I realized the secret isn't the kids themselves, it's the ticking clock.

When your only free time is when your kids are either at school or unconscious (via sleep, one would hope), you have to prioritize. You could wait until they're grown up and out of the house to pursue writing, but 20 years or so is a long time to wait when you've got a story you want to tell right now. 

Those moms didn't want to be the people that put off their goals until conditions were perfect, only to discover that conditions would never be perfect, and they never did what they dreamed of doing.

I'm far from a midlife crisis, and hopefully I'm even farther from croaking my regrets from my deathbed, but I'm slowly starting to learn the warning signs of an unfulfilled life, and I'm trying to be proactive about it.

Some people need to be told to take a break. Others need to be told to get to work. I am among the latter. It's nothing to be ashamed of, so long as I do what I must to manage my inherent condition. Writing is a muscle, and I have to take care of it like I do for the rest of my body. I don't, I'll end up miserable.

Finding the best routine for my health requires a bit of trial and error. After years of experience, I now avoid certain foods depending on the time of day, I use more moisturizer in the winter, I try my best to get 9 hours of sleep, and I use a cleansing shampoo once a week.

So, what do I need to do to make my writing muscle as strong as it can be? Set a timer? A word count goal? A plot progression goal? Keep my butt in the chair for X amount of time on workdays, Y on days off?

Who knows? But I plan to find out.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Importance of Trying

This morning the winner of the "That's a Pretty Good Excuse" Writing Retreat Scholarship was announced. It isn't me, but it IS a very talented individual who I suspect deserves the "retreat" aspect of the workshop much more than I do. According to the Writing Excuses website, "the quality of the applications was higher than expected, all across the board", which gives me reason to believe I can one day rise to the top of the slush pile in an agent's inbox. 

As I sit here trying not to over-analyse what kept my submission from being The One, I'm also getting over my most recent bout of writer's block. My current story knot is not the biggest one I've had to untangle, but for the last three days my eagerness/anxiousness to discover the contest results greatly hindered my ability to step back and look at the problem with an objective eye.

My word processor has a file labeled "Darlings", where I keep all the things I like that I had to kill because they weren't what was best for the story. During my scholarship preparations, a heavily revised Chapter Two became Chapter One. The old Chapter One went to the "Darlings" file, and it will stay there. Instead of letting it take up space on my hard drive, I could just delete it, but I like having my murdered darlings close, where I can occasionally look over them like I would a battle scar. They are a testament to my willingness to make changes and move on, even if it's painful and a lot of work. 

To get over my block, I realize I needed to do more than leave it alone and let my subconscious mull it over. I also needed to embrace that same fearlessness.

I touched on this in To Not Suck, One Must First Suck, but you know what They say, "Life is learning the same lesson over and over again."

Not gonna lie, I told myself repeatedly that I wasn't going to win, hoping the universe would prove me the liar like it often does. But the universe sees right through those mind games, and I knew it, so my soul isn't crushed at the news. Besides, I'm lucky enough to have an acquaintance who is attending the retreat, and they have graciously offered to take notes and share them with me, so I won't be completely missing out. In the meantime, there are plenty of things I can continue to improve on that are strictly a solo effort. 

I might not have been a winner, but I was try-er, and honestly, I think that's more important for me right now. 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dancers, Dreams, and Dragons

It's been 2 years and 8 months since my last dance class. In June, it will be three years since my last recital.

Gone are the days when I could bend over and touch my toes whenever I pleased. Today, I needed a good 20 minute warm-up before I could put my hands flat on the floor again.

I can still hold an arabesque for ages, but I can't bring my leg half as high as I used to.

I have to think for a minute before I recall certain French ballet terms.

My splits and straddles are horri-bad now.

Let us forget that I could ever do a halfway decent ponche.

I don't practice triple pirouettes and side leaps when I'm alone in the aisles at work anymore.

I do tap in my sneakers when I'm standing at my register with nothing to do, or at home in my socks when I'm in front of the oven and the cookies are just about done.

The grace and rhythm I developed over the course of 12 years continues to be my best party trick. I am second to none at Dance Central, and my moves on the wedding reception dance floor are as bon-diggidy as ever. (Also, that's the first time I've ever had to spell that word.)

Quiet piano music still triggers my legs to assume one of the five basic positions.

I can't listen to any music at all when I write. The urge to choreograph is still too great.

My husband's eyes still glaze over when I start ranting about the "soulless, uninspired" routines of the dancers on TV. At least I'm not holding back jealous tears anymore.

That said, when I visited home back in December, I had to leave my old dance studio much sooner than I wanted to. Watching the Monday night ballet class go over the same combinations to the same songs just about killed me.

When I'm not doing the equivalent of pulling a former fiancee's ring out of a hidden compartment in my dresser drawer, like I did in December, I don't actually feel the pain that intensely anymore. I'm capable of looking back on it with humor and something that might one day be maturity as well.

The journey isn't over yet though. Dragons don't die easily, and this dance thing is a heckuva beastie. I can't just say it's all in the past and move on any more than a village can return to normal life when the Heroes stop the Dragon from burning crops and kidnapping virgins. New crops need to be planted, and ashes are a fine fertilizer. The virgin demographic needs to be restored to a proper level, so the Virtuous Knights ought to set about deflowering the Fair Maidens they rescued.

Yes, ridding the town of virgins is a curious solution to a lack of virgins, but it's also the only solution. True wisdom is found when one not just accepts, but embraces life's paradoxes!

To any concerned, I'm just taking a metaphor much farther than I should. I am not announcing a pregnancy.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Most Challenging Book of 2012: The Black Company

Not a man falls without my telling his tale. How can I do that from twenty miles away? How many details will be lost in the oral histories I will have to collect after the fact? How many men will fall without their deaths being observed at all?

But mostly I spend my time thinking about the Limper and the Lady. And agonizing.

I do not think that I will be writing any more cute, romantic fantasies about our employer. I have been too close to her. I am not in love now.

I am a haunted man. I am haunted by the Limper's screams. I am haunted by the Lady's laughter. I am haunted by my suspicion that we are furthering the cause of something that deserves to be scrubbed from the face of the earth. I am haunted by the conviction that those bent upon on Lady's eradication are little better than she.

I am haunted by the clear knowledge that, in the end, evil always triumphs. 

- excerpt from The Black Company by Glen Cook

I have always admired people who do what they aren't supposed to do, but what they do is so awesome that no one cares. Glen Cook breaks the "rules" of writing on almost every page, but he always follows the only real rule: tell a good story.

Croaker is the historian and medic for an infamous mercenary band. They don't care what side their employer is on. If the pay is right, the Black Company is loyal to the end, and will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Their reputation precedes them, and soon they're recruited by the Lady, a powerful sorceress set on world domination. Their job is to kill anyone who gets in her way.

Croaker's moral compass is a bit rusty from lack of use, but he's still got one, darn it, and when word gets out that the prophesied White Rose has been reborn to fight for all that is good, he starts questioning his oath of loyalty to both the Lady and the Company itself. It's every soldier's dilemma, except it's not just one country at stake.

It's easy for me to lapse into excited writer's jibberish whenever I talk about The Black Company, but that would also kind of ruin the point I'm trying to make. So I'm keeping the technical jargon to a minimum.

They say war is months of boredom punctuated by moments of horror. I'll follow Croaker for four pages while he plays card games and shoots the breeze with his buddies on watch, when suddenly the garrison comes under attack. He grabs his sword and his medic's kit and three paragraphs later the rebel riot is squashed. A few simple yet powerful descriptions will cover hours, sometimes days of sustained combat. It's short and to the point, and I don't feel like I was jipped out of an experience by not seeing every move that was made.

Cook also breaks several dialogue "rules". The language that he and his cohorts use often doesn't fit the language of a medieval, or at least pre-industrial society. Sometimes they refer to things that I have no reason to believe have been invented or even conceptualized yet. Doesn't matter. His men are soldiers, and they talk, think, and act like soldiers. In fact, the anachronistic dialogue and characterization is so authentic that Cook's fanbase has a huge military demographic.

Worst and best of all, Croaker straights up tells me things about himself and the people around him that he's supposed show me by artfully hinting at them using various devices of the craft. I don't care, because he tells me in a way that grabs my attention. As an example, after reading this line from book two, Shadows Linger, I had to set the book down and to let the full weight of the words sink in:

"I hadn't had many shots at field command. I hadn't learned to deal with the feelings that come when you know men have been killed trying to carry out your orders."


In interviews, Glen Cook doesn't have much to say about the craft of writing. He doesn't get caught up in trends; he was writing dark, gritty fantasy before it was a Big Thing, and if someone told him it was no longer a Big Thing, I doubt that would stop him from writing whatever he wants. He doesn't shroud his work in mysticism; he wrote most of his novels while working a blue-collar job at General Motors. He is no pretentious artiste droning on about his Muse.

Me, I'm something of a pseudo-literati. I read books with an analytic eye that I'm sure would be very helpful if applied to something practical. I admit that I like it when the perfect word to describe something also happens to be a big, smart word. (Seriously, earlier versions of this post put me in debt for all the 2 dollar words I dropped.) I also have a tendency to lose myself in the technical side of writing, reworking the same paragraph over and over, and I miss the forest for the trees.

Glen Cook tells me to cut that crap out. He tells me to focus on my job. Tell the story. Fifty years from now, who cares if university professors find my prose a work of genius or an act of literary vandalism? Who cares if anyone at all remembers me fifty years from now? Did I like what I did?

All of the best writers use what works and throw away everything else. Anything can work if done well. At the same time, I can't please everyone. Even though I think The Black Company is brilliant, it remains mostly under the mainstream radar and is something of a cult classic. Clearly my opinion is not the be-all-end-all, but that's fine, because neither is anyone else's.

The Black Company challenged me to write the story I want to tell, to the best of my ability. The rest will take care of itself.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Most Informative Book of 2012: The Book of Five Rings

Do not think dishonestly. The Way is in training. Become acquainted with every art. Know the Ways of all professions. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters. Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything. Perceive those things which cannot be seen. Pay attention even to trifles. Do nothing which is of no use.


If there is a Way involving the spirit of not being defeated, to help oneself and gain honor, it is the Way of strategy.

- excerpt from The Book of Five Rings, by Miyamoto Musashi

The divine magic my characters use is as otherworldly and esoteric as it's source. To balance this, I intend for the stabbity parts of the novel to be as visceral and grounded in reality as possible. All of my experience with stabbing things other than Capri Suns has thus far been restricted to the virtual realm, so I've turned to the masters of both Eastern and Western combat traditions to help me get that "grounded in reality" thing down.

Conservative estimates say that Musashi Miyamoto, a Japanese swordsman and ronin, fought over 60 duels in his lifetime, and scholars generally agree that he was never defeated. That amazing KDR (Kill to Death Ratio, for non-gamers) doesn't even take the major battles he fought into account. With this in mind, I feel comfortable trusting Musashi as an authority on what do to in a life or death fight.

One of the greatest swordsmen in history somehow manages to be both ambiguous and practical in this treatise on combat, strategy, and philosophy. If I really wanted to, and I kind of do because he's got a great voice, I could share quote after quote to further demonstrate what I mean. While a small part of the book is dedicated to breaking down specific stances and techniques, most of his advice about finding the Way of the swordsman/strategist is given in broad terms that the student is intended to reflect upon for long periods of time. It gives interesting insights into a culture where being a warrior is not just a profession or a duty but a way of life that affects everything you do - the way you eat, sleep, think, walk, talk. Seriously, everything.

Buddhist philosophy clearly influences his perspective, but as I said, it's not all navel-gazing. The man who says things like "By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist" also says "Whenever you cross swords with an enemy you must not think of cutting him either strongly or weakly; just think of cutting and killing him". He emphasizes multiple times throughout the text that within a fight, any movement that doesn't contribute to the end goal - killing the other guy - is a deadly waste of time and effort.

This attitude jars with many of modern entertainment's portrayals of fights. Everyone's spinning in circles, gritting their teeth as they lock into a prolonged edge-on-edge parry, or discussing the child-rearing methods of the hero's parents in between exchanges.

As an audience, we like all those things because they're clear, easily understood images that add flash and drama. In contrast, unless someone has researched the topic specifically, if they watch a true-to-life sword fight they'll probably go, "Wait! He's dead? What happened?" because it's over so fast and when you don't have a clue what to watch for it looks like a crazy tangle of metal.

I don't interpret this to mean that "real" sword fights are by default less cool than implausible sword fights, though. I do think it means it's difficult to depict a realistic fight well. I'll spare everyone the lecture on craft that will be of interest only to me, but I will say this: after reading detailed step-by-step instructions on how to stand, how to swing, how to block, how to counter...I understand why a fictional villain would opt for insulting my mother instead.

Admittedly, the Book of Five Rings does have a narrower appeal than the books I've recommended thus far. However, to not include it in my Best Of list would be a crying shame. This little book had a big influence on the way I view combat both in fiction and in real life, and it was my first stop on a long trail of literature that was similarly formative. Ideally, my continued research will help my fight scenes become as entertaining, accessible, and realistic as I want them to be. If it doesn't, well, at least I can talk about swords (and other weapons!) without sounding like a complete ignoramus.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

To Not Suck, One Must First Suck

The next segment of my Best of 2012 series is temporarily on hold as I prepare my submission for the "That's A Pretty Good Excuse" Writing Retreat Scholarship. Now that my stomach has ceased its efforts to relocate elsewhere, the last-minute revisions are going well; however, the battle to stay positive goes on.

Writing is writing and unlike anything else, but some of the lessons I learned as a dancer are still applicable to the pursuit of writing. What can I say, like many perfectionists, I find myself drawn to things that are impossible to do perfectly. (They rarely pay well, either.) 

In addition to the solemn chanting of an especially relevant Ira Glass quote, I have some mantras from my dancing days that I've slightly reworked to help get me through the month:

1.) You are a beginner. Do not resent this phase. 

2.) You can only get out of said phase if you embrace your role as a student. Find teachers. Be taught. 

3.) You've only been doing this for a year and a half. Don't look down on yourself for not being an expert already. 

4.) Insecurity is a weakness, and a very childlike one at that. It's also human. Reconcile yourself to the idea that, in many ways, you're acting like someone your age. That's not a bad thing.  

5.) Resenting youth is as counter-productive as resenting beginner-hood. This is essentially a repeat of 2.) and 4.), but you cannot learn something if you think there's nothing left to learn.

6.) At least you aren't as bad as that other guy.

7.) Stop clicking around and get back to work.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Most Beautiful Book of 2012: Body of Work

"By the end of today you'll hold a human heart in your hands. It's amazing!" Goslow says. Until this point I had been diligently taking notes in the first pages of my fresh notebook, but as he conjures this image, I stop and sit quietly, a little slack-jawed. 

     Suddenly we are talking about reaching the cadaver's heart and lungs, and I have barely begun to get used to the idea of the initial cut through a dead body's skin. Friends of mine who finished medical school before me had alluded to the pace of the course when I asked about acclimation. "You don't have much time to process," one friend said. "There's just too much to get done." This class would be a baptism by fire. We would be given driving instructions and a car with no brakes. Twice a week we would spend seven hours a day in the anatomy lab, where we could make right turns or wrong turns, but we would most certainly be moving. Dr. Goslow's tone is encouraging, yet also utterly straightforward: "This will be fascinating, frustrating, and technically and emotionally difficult, but it will also get done. We don't have much time, so get started."

-- excerpt from Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab, by Christine Montross

This summer I watched a bullhead fish get beheaded, skinned, and gutted. I played it cool for about 2 minutes before I had to sit down with my head between my knees while taking deep cleansing breaths. I am, most assuredly, not cut out to be a doctor.  Nevertheless, I look on all forms of life with both academic interest and reverent awe. Words on a page serve as a sort of psychological hazmat suit that lets me educate myself without putting the contents of my stomach at risk.

Part reflective memoir, part intro to gross anatomy, and part history lesson, Body of Work was hard to categorize, both on the bookshelf and on my Best of 2012 list. I knew it was one of my favorite reads this year, but why? It was informative and inspiring, but I felt like naming it either one of those things with a capital "I" wouldn't call enough attention to everything else it did well.

I eventually named it my Most Beautiful because it was so uniquely multi-faceted. Montross was a poet and college writing instructor before she decided to go to medical school, and her varied background gives her the ability to write with intelligence, empathy, and lyricism.

When she spoke of bones, muscles and tendons and how they interact with the brain, my fascination with such things was renewed. How amazing that even in death putting pressure on part X makes part Y react. Her chapters on the controversial history of human dissection sent a horde of plot bunnies scampering through my head. Did you know that in the nineteenth century there was a serial killer duo that sold the bodies of their victims to anatomists? They killed 16 people before they were caught, and it wasn't because the anatomy schools finally thought to question where all the fresh corpses were coming from. Nope, just a bit of carelessness combined with some suspicious visitors. And the best part? Following his execution, one of the body snatchers was dissected as a special event, and this was back in the days when buying tickets to watch a dissection was like getting tickets to the movies.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Body of Work are the personal accounts of the author as she and her classmates deal with the ethical dilemmas that plague every member of the medical field. Before I read this book, when I thought about PTSD my mind conjured up images of soldiers and victims of abuse and other traumatic experiences. Rarely did I think of doctors. That changed when I got inside the head of a medical student as they made their first cut, as they gritted their teeth while sawing through bone, as they made off-color jokes to their peers to disguise the uncertainty roiling inside them, as they went home exhausted from a long day at the lab only to lay awake for fear of the nightmares.

People become doctors so they can heal. People also have some eons old hang-ups about death. It takes a certain strength of character to be willing to face the latter in order to learn how to effectively do the former. But Body of Work does not place doctors on a kind of moral and intellectual pedestal. Rather, it was the humanization of these aspiring professionals that made me respect what they do all the more.

It's interesting that writing about elves has been the catalyst to my increasingly more nuanced perspective on humans. I've discovered that painting humanity with one brush is as tired and uninspiring as making all elves aloof, leaf-munching hippies with a superiority complex. As a writer I need to be able to see any given person as an individual, and I need to be capable of celebrating their virtues while giving equal thought to their flaws. It's Reality 101.

To run away from reality - the most complex, tangible thing I can experience - is to deprive myself of something beautiful.